The History of Thanksgiving
The tradition of placing turkey at the center of the Thanksgiving dinner table is deeply entrenched today, but it was one that was slow to take hold. It became prominent only in more recent history and, in part, through the concerted advertising efforts of the American poultry industry.
Why are turkeys associated with Thanksgiving?
The turkey’s association with Thanksgiving is as contrived as the notion that the holiday was established to celebrate the Pilgrims’ good fortune after landing at Plymouth Rock. It is far from certain that turkey was even consumed at the 1621 feast, which, according to the only two known, first-hand accounts of the event, featured “many fowle and five deere.” Turkeys are never specifically mentioned in these accounts, and another such celebration feast would not be seen in the colonies for at least 50 years.
When our forefathers began the work of establishing a holiday centered on the giving of thanks, consensus was elusive. The first official, presidential announcement of the formation of such a holiday came in 1789 from George Washington, who dedicated October 2 to a celebration of the Constitution more than 150 years after the Pilgrims’ fall feast. In 1798, President John Adams designated May 9 as “a time for fervent thanksgiving.” Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, opposed the idea of a thanksgiving day because he considered proclaiming holidays to be “a monarchical practice.” Consequently, another national thanksgiving celebration was not observed for the next 60 years.
When did Thanksgiving Day become a holiday?
Thanks, in large part, to the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale, an editor of a popular women’s magazine, the holiday was revived in the mid-19th century. Every fall, she published a slew of editorials and recipes (most featuring turkey) in her magazine and wrote hundreds of letters advocating the establishment of a “Thanksgiving” holiday. In an 1861 plea to President Abraham Lincoln, she wrote of the importance of a day to “lay aside our enmities … and join in a Thanksgiving Day of peace.”
In 1863, after more than 30 years of lobbying, Sarah Josepha Hale’s wish was granted when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. According to University of Michigan anthropology professor Richard Ford, at that time, “there were many different foods that could be served, and it is from this time period that our typical dinner foods derive.” In 1896, the first edition of Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book recommended that the day be celebrated with foods symbolic of the “Pilgrim.”
According to historical accounts, during this time period, before the invention of the icebox, farmers usually killed their turkey flock in the fall because cool weather staved off the natural decomposition of the animals’ flesh. The coinciding of the Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays with this yearly event may have bolstered the push for turkey consumption at Thanksgiving feasts.
Selective Breeding of Turkeys
Nonetheless, turkey meat was not widely accepted as the quintessential Thanksgiving dish until the mid-20th century. Apparently, many housewives struggled with “pinning” — the act of removing the tiny pin feathers from the dark-skinned carcass — when preparing turkeys. To make the affair less arduous and more appealing to consumers, the Beltsville White was bred and perfected in 1947. The Beltsville White was the culmination of a breeding program, launched by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) at the behest of the National Turkey Federation, to produce a bird with a more aesthetically pleasing carcass.
In 1947, the National Turkey Federation’s annual presentation of a turkey to the standing U.S. president also began. The ritual, paired with the introduction of the new, light-skinned Beltsville White, instigated a surge in U.S. turkey consumption. Between 1950 and 1960, turkey consumption at least doubled, and consumption has continued to rise almost every year since. Today, Americans consume an average of 17.5 pounds of turkey flesh per person every year, up dramatically from the less than three pounds consumed per person prior to 1940 before the launch of the National Turkey Federation’s campaign.
The symbolism surrounding the Thanksgiving turkey, much like the modern domestic turkey himself, has been largely manufactured by cynical commercial interests. There is neither compelling historical precedent nor meaningful rationale for associating the butchered carcass of a turkey with our national day of thanksgiving.